Everyone loves a cute cat video on the internet and some of the most popular videos recently have shown cats reacting ridiculously to cucumbers. Why are cats – miniature lions, fearless predators – so afraid of an apparently harmless vegetable?
In most of the popular videos, someone quietly places a cucumber behind a cat while it is facing the opposite way, often eating or otherwise distracted. When the cat turns around to see the cucumber, it either hilariously jumps in the air and scampers away, or it prepares to fight the inanimate vegetable. The cat’s response gives us a clue as to why they are so scared of cucumbers – it is a typical “fight or flight” response.
Fight or Flight
The “fight or flight” response is usually associated with prey animals such as horses, but it is actually recognised in almost all animals. It is defined as “the response of the sympathetic nervous system to a stressful event, preparing the body to fight or flee, associated with the adrenal secretion of epinephrine and characterized by increased heart rate, increased blood flow to the brain and muscles, raised sugar levels, sweaty palms and soles, dilated pupils, and erect hairs.” Essentially, this means that when the body is placed in a stressful situation, lots of things instinctively happen together to get the body ready to either “fight” or “flight” – stand up to whatever is causing the stress or run away from it.
When a cat turns around and is suddenly faced with a cucumber that wasn’t there a few seconds ago, it’s bodily functions go into overdrive and it instinctively prepares itself to fight the unidentified object or flee from it.
But It’s A Cucumber!
The recent craze on the internet has focussed on cucumbers, but it isn’t really the cucumber the cat is afraid of. It is the unexpected positioning of something that wasn’t there before, exacerbated by the fact that cucumbers happen to be long, creepy and possibly smelly!
Think about what is in the environment around you right now. Although you can’t see everything in the room, you have a pretty good idea of what is in your immediate surroundings – furniture, ornaments, pictures on the wall, other people in the room and the clothes they are wearing. Now, if you turned around and something suddenly appeared that wasn’t there a few seconds ago, it might give you quite a fright. If the new object happened to be something you are afraid of, it would be even worse!
But It’s Still Just A Cucumber!
This is true, but when the cat turns around and is faced with an unexpected object, its “fight or flight” response takes over before its complex analytical brain has a chance to process what the object is. This is because if the cat (or any other animal) was suddenly faced with a real threat, they wouldn’t have time to assess it, so rely on the instinctive “fight or flight” response.
The “fight or flight” response would probably kick in as a response to most sudden new objects, but particularly so for cucumbers due to their shape, size and maybe smell. Cats, like humans, and many other animals, are naturally fearful of snakes. Even though your cat may never have encountered a snake, its ancestors did and over countless generations, cats (and humans) brains have essentially been programmed to be fearful of snakes, as well as many other things our brains perceive as threats. A cucumber may not look much like a snake to us, but in that instant a cat turns around, its brain activates the “fight or flight” response to deal with the perceived threat immediately. Any delay while the more complex part of the brain processes the information more accurately could result in the cat being bitten by a snake. Basically, it is better to be safe, than sorry!
Although the videos on the internet may seem funny, it is actually quite a cruel prank to play on an unsuspecting cat. Cats brains are not developed enough to understand that it is a joke and one prank will result in your cat living under considerable constant stress because the home they thought was safe has suddenly become unsafe. Often, after being pranked in this way, cats behaviour will change and they stop being so trusting, refusing to eat or use their litter tray without being able to see all around themselves.